Despite recent tragic events, a stripped back London Fashion Week kicks off today. But did you know that there are an estimated 25 million people in forced labour slavery around the world – and many are producing items we use every day, including our clothes? Frances Kordonowy from International Justice Mission UK explores the dark reality of exploitation in fashion supply chains, and what we can all do to help.
In February 2019, authorities arrived at a silk factory in South Asia to find a horrific scene: a young mother and her four-year-old son cried out from behind a small metal grate leading to the room where they had been locked for six months. Chandramma and her son had been trapped at the facility alongside a dozen other people — forced to work up to 15-hour days, harassed by the owner, and unable to escape.
It all started when she took a job at the facility, after being offered an advance on her wages. She hoped this loan would provide financial stability, but when she and her children arrived, they soon realised that the situation was nothing like she’d been promised.Now, they were forced to stay because of the debt. Some of the people Chandramma was working alongside had been trapped at the facility for ten years.
A young mother and her four-year-old son had been locked behind a small metal grate for six months.
Her hands were quickly raw from the boiling water and cramped from spinning thread, but there was no relief in sight. The owner beat and harassed the workers regularly, and punished them if they tried to escape. Sadly, this horrific experience isn’t uncommon. Around the world today, it’s estimated 25 million people are trapped in forcedlabour – just one of the many forms that modern slavery can take – and many are forced to work in the supply chains of consumer products, including clothing. Because of the complex, global nature of these supply chains, it can be difficult to know exactly who made our clothes, and the conditions they were working in.
As a consumer, I want to buy from businesses which treat their workers well – paying them fairly and making sure they have a safe and supportive working environment. There are actions we can take as consumers to make more ethical choices, like looking out for brands who are transparent about how they pay their workers. But the shocking reality is that 77 per cent of UK businesses think there is a likelihood of slavery in their supply chains (source: Ethical Trading Initiative) - including in the fashion industry. When businesses source goods and labour from countries where exploitation is common, it is difficult for them to entirely eliminate the risk of abuse in their supply chains.
77 per cent of UK businesses think there is a likelihood of slavery in their supply chains.
That means that despite trying to make informed choices about where I buy my clothes from, I know that ultimately, if my clothes were made in countries where modern slavery is prevalent, there’s a chance that someone trapped in slavery could have made them. That’s why, as well as making ethical choices as consumers, we also need to support systemic change - with consumers, business and government working together to make sure nobody is exploited.
I work for International Justice Mission (IJM), one of the world’s largest anti-slavery organisations. We’re working to stop slavery by tackling the problem at source: partnering with local authorities to help find trafficking victims and bring them to safety; holding perpetrators to account through the justice system; and creating long-term change so that vulnerable people are protected from exploitation in the first place. When IJM’s local team learned of Chandramma’s case, they brought it to the attention of local authorities. We then supported an operation to bring Chandramma to safety – alongside her son and the other exploited workers.
This London Fashion Week, let’s stand in solidarity with survivors of modern slavery to say enough is enough.
Today, Chandramma is rebuilding her life in freedom, working as a wedding planner and bringing up her two children. She’s also chosen to act as an advocate for other people still trapped in slavery, through her involvement with a local survivor network which advocates for the rights of victims and survivors, and help authorities take action to end slavery.
This London Fashion Week, let’s stand in solidarity with survivors like Chandramma to say enough is enough. It’s going to take a movement to stop slavery – from businesses investing in ethical practices, to governments around the world deciding to do more to protect vulnerable workers. The UK government has a role to play, through supporting anti-slavery initiatives in countries involved in the supply chains of British businesses. And as individuals, we can help by making ethical fashion choices, and by supportingorganisations like IJM who are working to create systemic change.
Together, we can stop exploitation for good. Find out more at IJMUK.org.